Monday, March 21, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Switching to a Single Income

A new correspondent whose wife, a teacher, is about to become a stay-at-home Mom writes:

I have queried the Internet, and there really is no good, definitive advice article on the topic of "how to maintain a healthy marriage when transitioning from a dual income home to a single income". We are aware that having a stay-at-home-mother will ease a lot of stress and make life easier, but life assures us that every situation will have its obstacles. I am very curious on what your obstacles were, as well as your wife's.

I hate to disappoint, but I don’t have that definitive advice in me. Every marriage is different. That said, I have some thoughts to share based on our experience, and I’ve included some comments from The Wife as well. As always, your mileage may vary.

- Money as quantity. There’s the issue of going without a salary, of course, and there’s a longer term issue of going without adding to retirement savings. One of the drivers for us moving to the stay-at-home Mom model was the realization that once The Girl came along, TW’s entire paycheck would go to daycare. It didn’t make sense to us. (In writing that, I’m very aware of being American. Folks in countries with reasonable parental leave and daycare policies probably have no idea what I’m talking about here.) That said, though, we’ve found that attempting to re-enter the workforce after several years away is much harder than we had expected, even with a graduate degree. Recessions happen when they happen.

- Money as control. One sanity-saver for us -- and every couple is different -- has been a tripartite division of checking accounts: hers, mine, and ours. My paycheck is directly deposited into three accounts, each with its own sphere of responsibility. “Our” account pays for house payments, car payments, utilities, groceries, insurance, kids’ clothes, and just about anything else that’s clearly intended to benefit the entire family. “Her” account is under her undisputed control, and goes for her clothing and whatever else she sees fit. “My” account is under my undisputed control, and works the same way. The idea is to prevent either of us from having to ask the other for permission for stuff that adults shouldn’t have to ask permission for. An economist might argue, with technical accuracy, that these boundaries are artificial and contrived, but who wants to be married to an economist? Good fences make good neighbors, and clear boundaries make for adults who feel like adults. That’s worth a little paperwork.

- Isolation. The stay-at-home parent, well, stays at home. It can lead to real isolation from the adult world. She’ll need to make a conscious effort to get involved in daytime activities in which she can meet other Moms. (In my observation, stay-at-home Dads are far less common, and the few who do exist are often unwelcome in the circles of Moms.) That’ll benefit both of you in any number of ways. She won’t go stir-crazy. You won’t have to carry the burden of being her sole connection to the adult world.

- “Make life easier” Well, yes and no. It makes certain kinds of logistics easier. Dual-career parents of young children quickly learn that a sick kid throws the daycare routine into chaos, since you can’t take a sick kid to daycare. Having an adult at home helps with that. As the kid grows into the school years, having a stay-at-home parent helps with all the random holidays, half-days, school vacation weeks, and summers. But don’t be too quick to assume that she’s just always there. Public schools are so starved for help, at this point, that any parent with time will be dragooned into ‘volunteering’ until they break.

- Remember it’s not 1950. Thinking of job-plus-home as ‘our’ work that just happens to be divided a particular way can be helpful. It’s also true. I’ve turned down job interviews in locations where TW didn’t want to be, and have never regretted doing it. And don’t do the piggish-male thing of foisting all the childcare onto her. When you watch the kids, you aren’t ‘babysitting’ -- they’re your kids! Change diapers, play Candyland, give baths, spend time routinely. You know that awful headache you get after a hard day at work when the kids are being difficult and you’re in charge of bathtime and bedtime? She gets that, too.

I asked TW for her perspective; what follows is from her.

- Find other stay-at-home parents in the area with same-aged kids. ASAP. There are some national groups that exist solely for this reason, so you can find local chapters. If you can't find a local group, go to a park and try to meet other parents, sign up for Gymboree classes, take turns hosting playdates. I know probably everyone has already given you this advice, but there’s a reason for it and I can’t stress it enough. Just....find....other.....parents. You need to get out and be with other adults. It's good socialization for you - and your baby.

- Along the same lines, get out of the house once a day even if it's to go for a walk or to buy milk (bring the baby along, of course). There were some days where I was even more chatty than the cashier at the grocery store whom I'm sure wished I would just shut up and pay.

- If you can't get out of the house, make it a point to talk to another adult besides your husband every day. You can’t always depend on him for socialization. It’s too much pressure.

- Don’t rub it in. I mean the fact that one stays home and the other goes out into the world. I can’t remember how many times I wanted to throttle DD when he came home from work and said, “We all went out to Friday’s for lunch today.” Meanwhile, my hair was a mess, I hadn’t showered, and I had breast milk down the front of my shirt.

- Yes, you will now be responsible for more of the household chores, but doing a little each day really helps. I like to be organized, so making a chore schedule worked for me. Vacuum downstairs and launder towels on Monday, clean kitchen on Tuesdays, clean bathrooms on Wednesdays, etc., etc. Once the chore for each day was finished I could concentrate on other things. If on Sunday I noticed that the kitchen floor was dirty, I didn't run to get the Swiffer. The day to clean the kitchen was Tuesday and it could wait until then. Friday was (and still is) my day for myself. By then the chores are done and the house is clean. I put on a little makeup, my nice jeans and run errands, take the kids to the library, etc. This may not work for you exactly, but you get the idea. You can't do it all in one day.

- But save some chores for your spouse. Besides being good for both of you, it's a good example for your kids. I truly believe that your parents set an example for you of how a marriage should and shouldn’t be. For instance, I had a friend who married an “Italian prince” (can I say that?). Anyway, this guy went from his mom’s house to a house with his wife and expected her to do everything for him just like his mom did. And you know what? She did. He didn’t lift one finger except to cut the grass and that was just so the neighbors would think what a wonderful family man he was. But the bigger problem is that their son is growing up to be just like his dad and will probably look for a woman who will treat him the same way. Even worse, their daughter will most likely look for another “prince”. I am lucky that my wonderful mother-in-law taught DD early on how to take care of himself, and the fact that he had been on his own for a long time when I met him helped, too. He already knew how to do laundry, vacuum, go grocery shopping, etc. because he had to. Yes, his idea of “clean” is a little different from mine, but I can still count on him. TB and TG see their dad loading/unloading the dishwasher, doing his own laundry and cooking on the weekends (our rule: one cooks and the other cleans up). I like to think that seeing some division of labor will be a good role model for their own relationships (way, way into the future). TB will learn not to expect a wife to do everything for him and TG will learn not to do everything for a husband. Both will look for a partner who will split things equally.

- Just a thought: since your wife is a teacher perhaps she could tutor 2-3 days a week at home? It will help keep her mind sharp and enable her to continue to do what she was trained for. Then when she is ready to go back to work she won't have a big blank spot on her resume.

- Finally, I know I can always count on DD to have my back everytime. He is my superhero.

Again, every situation is different, but I hope you’re able to glean something useful from our experiences.. I’d also like to hear from any of my wise and worldly readers who’ve learned some of those “I wish I had known then...” lessons.

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I would add to these:

Stay flexible. I chose a career where I could freelance deliberately and planned to stay home as well. After 20 months I found it just wasn't for me. I missed working with a team and making things happen over the long term. I found a great daycare and haven't looked back. I was really unhappy at home at that time.

Keep talking. My marriage suffered some while I was hone. Partly that was my growing unhappiness, but it was also related to how different my husband's and my days were. We would have worked it out, but it shocked me. I forgot what a grind it is having a boss, pointless meetings etc. He wasn't aware of how intense early years parenting is. We each tended to think the grass was greener.
i discussed this subject with a friend.

he said that, in his experience & that of his friends, a major key is to make sure that you get your "destress" or "me" time when you get home before you take over for your wife.

it takes about 30-60 minutes for a man to wind down from work (read "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" to learn more). my friend said that there is an urge for his wife to immediately hand over the kids the moment he gets home ("they're driving me insane. take your kids!!!").

he said that he had to make an agreements with his wife on an amount of time (30-60 minutes) that he could have to himself right after work. he said this agreement has helped them immensely, as it allows him to mentally give 100% focus for the evening - X-minutes, versus a 50% focus for the entire evening. more gets done, and his wife has more opportunity to have her own "down time."

as much as the wife will want her own alone time when the husband comes home, she has to remember that he hasn't had any opportunity for himself throughout the day either. working together in this aspect can really help (so I've been told).

personally, i go to the gym during this time, so when i get home, i'm ready to help. if i don't get this time, i'm very irritable and angry. i need time to stop being pissed off about work. but i build the gym into my work day, so once i step foot in the door, i'm ready to go.
Forty years ago when we had our first child, in our area of the country no nursery/day care center would care for a baby until it was 6 months old. So if one had a child, one knew staying home was mandatory for the first 6 months unless one had a trusted friend, neighbor or relative to take care of the baby.

Of course, there were more stay at home moms back then because there were fewer jobs open for women. So, we decided that I would stay at home until our family was complete and then I would go back to teaching when the children were older.

There was less money, but we did without dinners out, parties with friends and trips. I sewed my clothes, did all the house work, and every meal was cooked from scratch except Sunday dinner. On Sundays we would go to McD's so I could be relieved of cooking after church. Never occurred to my husband to ever cook.

We were just fine on a limited income. Helped us save money after I began bringing in a pay check.

So, I say ditto to everything DD and TW wrote. Everything!

When our oldest child was 7 and the youngest was 3, I began substitute teaching to ease back into the work place.

I think our children learned how to budget well and live inexpensively if they wanted to because they spent those early formative years in a one income home.
Jas - It's a good idea, but giving him 30-60 minutes of "me" time also prolongs the wife's day and that sucks for her.
Good luck with this. As a faculty parent, I had to go back to work when mat leave was over, so my husband took up the challenge of at-home parenting while we used part-time daycare to let him pursue a second degree. To this day, he's underemployed so we can juggle caring for autistic youngest when school's out.

You will save on some expenses of employment (daycare, car, wardrobe). Your stay-at-home partner will make the most sacrifices, not only immediate financial, but long-term retirement, personal satisfaction, socialization and career development. That's a lot!

Recognize that stay-at-home parenting is a tough and often thankless task, and however important it is? Rarely is it as relaxing as a day at the office. Having worked in academe and out, as well as done the stay-at-home gig for a time, I can say that working outside the home is much easier on my health and mental welfare.

It's important to do your share of household work and childcare, especially right when you come home. If the kids are young, your partner can be driven to the breaking point with sleep deprivation and a lack of support. Saying you need "to decompress" isn't acknowledging that your partner likely feels exactly the same after a day when there wasn't even private time for a bathroom break! Maybe you alternate who gets the five o'clock hour each weekday, but don't expect to be the priority just because you bring in the pay cheque!

Whatever you do, respect your partner's needs, opinions and concerns. Don't leave them isolated or assume that your job is more important than their work. Support them when they begin the difficult task of reintegrating into the paid workforce and, for goodness' sake, please work for sane policies to support people in your communities struggling with eldercare, childcare and family responsibilities.
Don't do what my ex did; he decided that since marriage was supposed to be 50/50 and he was bringing in $X, I owed him $X of housework, valued at minimum wage. He claimed for himself the authority to check my work.

Yes he is my EX. No big surprise.
I was a stay-at-home mom for a while. Working outside of the home is MUCH easier. I'm much happier (and more rested) now that I am back in the outside work world.

I think everything DD and Wife said is true. My thing was that sometimes I hadn't even had time to go to the bathroom during the day. When my husband came home I needed him to be ready to help and understand that neither of us were done for the day. Yes, his work day was over but his parenting day was not. This was a not-so-small issue to get him to understand. Help, help, help when you get home. (My experience was with a newborn/infant/toddler age range so maybe the need for help and a moment to use the bathroom are less pronounced with older children)
"That said, though, we’ve found that attempting to re-enter the workforce after several years away is much harder than we had expected, even with a graduate degree. Recessions happen when they happen."

Difficulty re-entering the workforce after a multi-year gap is a problem whether the economy is booming or whether it is in recession. The economy actually has very little to do with the challenges that women face in re-entering. Regardless of degrees they hold or prior work experience, a gap in work history pretty much puts women back at square one in terms of career. The women I know who have taken time out of the paid workforce to care for children have ultimately retrained and changed careers or started their own businesses. They have *not* had a place waiting for them in their previous careers.
Thank the goddess I'm not married to jas, and my condolences to the person who is!

What constitutes 'help' means different things to different people at different times. When you are breast-feeding every three hours you need sleep and fuel and someone to take the baby while you shower. When you are dealing with toddlers you need sleep, fuel and kid-free down-time. Older kids need to be driven places and homework help. Discuss these issues with your partner frequently, and be open to things changing (because they will).

The most important thing I can think of is to spend time with your kid(s), especially if that time frees your spouse up to take a breather and connects you with your children in meaningful ways. An example might be, when you get home that's story-time with your kid; just you and the kid, reading a couple of books for 10 minutes while the SAH person goes elsewhere. Have a regular activity on the weekend for you and the child, a walk, trip to the library, whatever, just something that you and the kid do together at a regular time so that you can connect and the SAH person knows they have an hour on Saturday to be kid-free.
1) Assuming you're an academic, don't forget summers. My wife started working full-time May-August and I stay home 24/7 then: cleaning, cooking, and homeschooling our kids. That is one way to reach 1.3 incomes while keeping a parent home at all times.

2) Contrary to what some other people are saying, I love staying at home with my kids those four months. Maybe it's because we take turns, but there's also a positive mental adjustment we made when we started homeschooling. Remember that the stress that other commenters mention is self-created--relax and have fun with your kids.

3) That means your attitude is important too. Time at home with your kids shouldn't be "temporarily shouldering a burden for Mom," it's a precious gift that far too many people in this world can't enjoy. Make the most of it, because they grow up too soon!

3) Get used to being on the short end of the "keeping up with the Joneses" status stick. It sucks to hear your two-income colleagues talking about new restaurants or shows or vacations while you're eating spaghetti for a week to keep your budget in the black. You'll probably argue with your wife about money, so remember that it's just money, not about you or her.

4) I'm going to let my un-PCness all hang out here and say that when things at at their bleakest (and they will get bleak) remember that your kids will grow up knowing their parents love them so much that Mom and Dad made major sacrifices to be there instead of farming them out to strangers.
My paycheck pretty much covers childcare. I worked hard to get my full time job and I didn't think that I'd be able to just start up again when my kids were in school as many people blithely suggested that I do seven years ago after my daughter was born. (Nodding along with Dr. Crazy). My kids are finally getting a little older and with each passing year, less of my paycheck goes toward care for them, but I'm not in my career just for the pay.

Can I also say that I worked hard to earn my Ph.D. and I don't think that I love my kids any less for going to work every day? In fact, I think I'm a great role model for both my sons and my daughter. (Sorry, I can't resist taking a dig at the un-PC comment #4 above this response.)

I have to wonder how much time Jas helps when he's ready after gym time. My kids are still in bed between 7:30 and 8, and we get home at 6. If my husband didn't get home until 7, he'd be ready to tuck them in.
Having tried this, I can say from my experience that "having a stay-at-home-mother will ease a lot of stress and make life easier" for YOU; it will be the opposite for her.

Read the research on stay-at-home mothers and mental health. Also be aware that if she may never be able to return to full-time employment (see Hewlett et al. on onramps and offramps).

Above all, please try it for 4-5 months (maybe a semester LOA?) before you she makes an irrevocable decision like quitting her job. My available anecdotal evidence points to the first four months or so being just fine; right after that is when you start to go all Sylvia Plath.
For what it's worth, I'm married to an economist and he pretty much agreed with what DD wrote, including the bank account stuff.

We also have mine, his, and ours bank accounts, and divide the financial responsibility up essentially the same way DD described. Economics, in addition to being about rational choices, is also about making decisions that provide the highest utility based on what the people involved value, and if you value maintaining a sense of equality in the family, the his/hers/ours division of finances makes perfect sense. :-)
What is *up* with all the inane stupid comments about if you're not a SAHP you're farming your kids out to strangers? It's like open season on working parents in blogland or something.

OMG, our kids will be unloved and unfit if they're not attached to mom's teat 24/7. Jeez... there's more than 40 hours/week and it takes a village to raise a child whether that village includes paid childcare or not. And I think my working mom was a great role-model and I love that DH had one as well because it makes him a better spouse and father.

I also know very few happy SAHM. The ones who are happy tend to be pretty laid back. If you're just doing it for the sake of the kids, seriously, your kids will be fine with good daycare. Millions of us are and we got a lot out of daycare that we wouldn't have gotten at home.

Also, agree with Dr. Crazy re: labor market absences even without a recession. And I'm an economist, though happily not married to one.
Keep your skills fresh. I interview way to many SAHMs who haven't made the slightest effort to stay up-to-date with our field.

Spare me the lame "household CEO" jokes and show me that you've at least bothered to learn the names of the new software that the industry has transitioned to in the last five years.
I did something similar to Jenn. I took up freelancing which gave me time to spend with my academically struggling teen. In fact, my advice to many parents is to save the stay at home time for when the kids start middle school. There are plenty of great daycares out there, but precious little after school care past elementary school.

Before I left my job, I put my entire paycheck into savings every month, both to build up our savings and to "practice" living on one salary. It was an adjustment, but it worked pretty well.

I did like my flexible schedule while, and I didn't just maintain my skills, I built up many of them. I also took on part-time teaching on occasion (with so many schools nearby, it's pretty easy to find).

I staved off loneliness by keeping up with some neighborhood moms and going out with former co-workers.
Your budgeting advice applies to any marriage, with or without two incomes. We also have three accounts, but the two individual ones are actually our emergency funds rather than daily working accounts.

The one problem with your three-checking-account system is that you can incur lots of fees unless each of them is above what can be a substantial threshold if two of them contain what is basically a monthly allowance. That is less of a problem if you have a two-month buffer in each of them for your emergency income buffer.

Of course, it takes a lot of talking and discipline to separate needs from wants and budget in a way that develops that base of savings and zero-balance credit cards. Talking is, as Jenn says, the key because no one solution works for everyone.
i like all of the digs at me.

let me defend myself a little bit.

first of all, i am the one who sent this question to DD. i want to be the best dad i can be, and i thought he would have good advice. i solicited his advice (and his wife's advice) because he's smart, level headed, and seems to be succeeding.

in regards to the advice given to me from a friend about having your "me" time, and my reference to the gym, let me go ahead and state that i get to work at 6:30am, so that i can be out by 4pm. i wake my son up and feed him, change him, and get him dressed, and my wife drops him off on her way to work. she is getting out of bed when i leave (taking over command). i do this so that i can get out of work sooner, so that my commitments after work are finished before 6pm, and because i love her enough to give her an extra 30 minutes of sleep every day.

second, i am working 9 hour days so that i can get every other friday off to be with my family (9.5 if you include my lunch break). i'm getting up an hour earlier than i have to every day so that i can have this time with them. mind you, over spring break, my wife got up around 8am every morning (when my son woke up), and often took naps when my son did. needless to say, she complained to no end about having to go back to work.

third, when she has time off, my wife often meets me at the gym (puts my son in their daycare for an hour) so we can work out at the same time. this is the game plan for when she comes home as well. i don't quite understand the outrage if she is doing this too?

fourth, yes, i do admit that taking time after work for myself prolongs my availability to work at home, but considering i am home by 6pm because i get up so early, it's not an issue.

fifth, i never said i don't help. i work my butt off at home every night. i do 90% of the cooking and the cleaning so that my wife can play with our son most of the night (hopefully this will change when she comes home). if we reversed roles, our home life would be a mess. she has acknowledged this several times.

sixth, my reason for going to the gym every day started because of obesity when i was a teenager. fortunately, i've turned it around for the most part (i'm 6'3", but still around 315lbs. i'm about as big as your average senior college lineman or rookie nfl lineman, and i push comparable weight in the gym). if someone like me doesn't hit the gym every day, i'll blow up to 500lbs without batting an eye.

lastly, i know how tough it is to watch kids all day; i fully acknowledge it. and if my wife wants to put it into high gear, learn some better paying skills, and get a job that pays what mine pays, i'll be more than happy to trade her spots and take on that work load. if she wants to go back to school & get another degree in a field that will pay more money so that she can work all of the time and i can come home and be with my son 24x7, show me where to sign.

thanks to those who have given me constructive advice.
Mothers and More for the sahm. My wife found this very helpful..

"me" time ?
When does your wife get her time ?
Staying at home with baby/kids means no personal time for her. I don't see any "me" time for your wife in that daily schedule..
DD's idea that home+paid work need to be treated as a joint task is a good one.

Dr Crazy is entirely right. For moms to re-enter the workforce is not a recession problem, it's a problem problem..
I'm just amused at the idea that men "need" time to transition between work and home -- and exercise to reduce stress and maintain their bodies -- but women, being automatons made of rose petals and pencil shavings, require nothing of the sort.

It's always strange to learn that men and women are actually different species from the internet. Well, takes all kinds, including those destined for custody battles.
Much depends on the basic personality types of the parents, and of the kids. I did not find it boring to be at home with a baby and then toddler. I went back to work (VERY part-time) when the first was almost 2, because we were almost starving. I highly recommend doing almost anything (including free-lancing at home) just to have a sense of the bigger world. Then 2 more came along, and it got to be a juggling act, but nothing like how awful it would have been to manage 2 adult jobs and caring for 3 kids -- not to mention that all of my salary would have gone for day care. BUT, my husband and I were both OK with not having any money; and we are both pretty laid back about chores, roles, etc. One of our children would have thrived in day care; the other 2, not so much.
I left full-time tt 18 years ago to live on a single income so that my husband could have his career (not available at the time in tt town) and so that I could raise our children.

Living on one income is hard. I do recommend the banking all of one and living on the other for about 6 months before you start if you can. It makes it easier to see what it will be like later.

If you have priorities that must be met, like gym membership, make sure you are both agreed on that. It is HARD to agree on how to spend money, especially if (as often happens) one partner feels that it is or is not their money. So the idea of three bank accts might work well here. (It did not for us, at least not early on and we didn't try it after that.)

Staying home is emotionally and physically draining. Your wife might be more helped by gym (with daycare) in the daytime, so that she can get some of the kids' energy run off while she builds her own.

Eventually I went back to work part-time, teaching at night and on the weekends. This was helpful to me because it helped me have some time that wasn't boys and cleaning. However, I didn't get as involved with the discipline as I should have and that cost me, financially and emotionally, when I went on the market ft.

If your wife can keep her hand in, with part-time work, and stay involved with developing ideas in her field, through reading or study, that is a good idea. If she's a teacher, she might do developmental classes at college. Or she might take a class a semester. That will keep her brain working and her mind in tune.

Our kids are the focus for many of us because they are our greatest joy and our biggest assignment, but they can also be the biggest drain. Make sure that there is time for parents together, because every marriage needs mom-dad with no kids time.

My kids went ballistic about 4:45, when my husband got home at 5:15. Every day we would have a great day until that ballistic time and then it would go to hell in a handbasket--or a monorail train. Eventually I started feeding the kids a midafternoon snack, and it turned out hunger was the problem.

Do not criticize your wife's management of the house or kids. My husband thought my kids were ballistic all the time and I really had to work to get him to understand that the tantrum/fighting/yelling stuff only happened right about the time he was leaving work.

It took me two years of ft pt work, at an abysmal pay, and working 70 hrs/wk to get a ft job with ft pay. I love my work. I'm glad for all the experiences. I'm glad I was able to stay home. It is worth it....

Oh, one other thing. Don't expect your children to appreciate it. Both my sons say they will never homeschool. I doubt they will expect/want their wives to stay home. They don't know, however, what pitfalls they missed, only the ones they got with me as their quite imperfect mother.
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